scene design and stage lighting: The Twentieth Century

The Twentieth Century

Scene designers in the early 20th cent., opposed to naturalism, strove to show the essence of a play through simplification, suggestion, and, often, stylization; selective realism was the keynote. The scene designer was directly responsible to the director who was by now the unifying head of a production. Edward Gordon Craig with his stage of many levels, Jacques Copeau with suggestive forms and screens, Vsevolod Meyerhold with his constructivistic sets of skeletal structures and geometric forms, Max Reinhardt with his expressionistic sets of abstract distortion, and Erwin Piscator with his theatricality and educational approach—all brought imagination and creativity to realistic design, which had become cluttered and uninteresting. The technical innovations of Steele MacKaye also came into general use.

In 1902 the cyclorama or sky-dome, a semicircular backing of whitewashed plaster or cement used to reflect light and thus create an illusion of depth, was invented. After 1912 lights were placed in the auditorium to allow for more natural angles of illumination for both the actor and the set. The projector lamp, a spotlight that could be dimmed, was invented in 1914; after 1919 colored “gels,” or gelatine, were placed over the lights. By 1922 stage lighting had become a scientific study.

After World War I the United States became a leader in the field of scene design with the work of such men as Robert Edmond Jones, Lee Simonson, Joseph Urban, Norman Bel Geddes, and Mordecai Gorelik; later such designers as Donald Oenslager, Jo Mielziner, Oliver Smith, Cecil Beaton, and Peter Larkin gained prominence. Since World War II, with the rise of the “theater of the absurd,” trends in scene design have become eclectic, ranging from realism to surrealism.

Some set designers, such as Ralph Keltai, try to capture the major mood of a play through abstract expression. Others attempt to re-create the sense of a period in which the play is set or set old plays in modern surroundings. If there is a unifying element it is the acceptance of Gordon Craig's insistence upon unification of the various theatrical arts. Therefore, whether the set and lighting are naturalistic or surrealistic, the attempt is made to integrate these elements with the acting, movement, and text of the play.

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